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Eating out organic, a new challenge for natural food connoisseurs

Patrons in Nora's unique dining room
Patrons in Nora's unique dining room  

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Burden of proof

'Everything has to be used'

Store-bought prepared foods

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(CNN) -- Choosing the perfect place to dine out can be a daunting task, especially if what you have in mind is an organic meal. Eating out organic can be both costly and difficult. Many equate organic with vegetarian, but that is far too limited a definition, according to chef Nora Pouillon, owner of Restaurant Nora in Washington D.C. The well-known establishment with a four-star Mobil rating is the only one in the United States with organic certification.

"I think some people might think it is a vegetarian restaurant," Pouillon says. "You know, misinformation is the biggest thing. People really don't understand what organic means. Many feel that organic means vegetarian food -- tasteless, flavorless food that is not very good. The advantage to this is that everybody is very happily surprised."

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Advocates of organic production and processing say organic applies not only to food, but how it is produced. Organic food is grown or raised based on a system of farming that mimics natural ecosystems or at least respects the natural ecosystems, according to John Foster, certification director with Oregon Tilth.
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So, what does organic mean? Advocates of organic production and processing say organic applies not only to food, but how it is produced. Organic food is grown or raised based on a system of farming that mimics natural ecosystems or at least respects the natural ecosystems, according to John Foster, a former certification director for Oregon Tilth.

In April, 1999 Restaurant Nora received certification from Oregon Tilth, one of the six largest private organic certifiers in the United States. Because it was the first restaurant to apply for certification, Oregon Tilth had the challenge of developing guidelines.

"The idea of setting standards is pretty broadly applicable. The challenge was taking standards that were designed for essentially growing something and modifying them... with regard to a restaurant," says Foster. "With a menu that changes a lot, or may change a lot, you have to consider how you are going to keep track of those changes with regard to ingredient sourcing. So it becomes a little more complicated," he says.

Burden of proof

To receive certification, Pouillon had to prove that organic growers and farmers produced 95 percent or more of everything people consumed in her restaurant. In some cases that meant she either had to help her supplier become certified or change to one with existing certification. Certifying Restaurant Nora took two years, in part, Foster explained, because Pouillon was the first to attempt this.

Chef -owner Nora Pouillon
Chef -owner Nora Pouillon  

"It would not take that long again. She really deserves a lot of credit for doing this," added Foster.

Pouillon said it was an important step. "I think I wanted to bring more awareness to my customers that I am going the extra mile, that it is not only that the chicken or the tomatoes or the lettuce that is organic, but that everything that they consume in the restaurant is organic. You know, the sugar, the salt, the chocolate, the coffee, the milk, the butter, the flour, the bread, you know, everything."

Restaurant Nora serves U.S. food prepared in an international way, but because all the ingredients are certified as organic, Pouillon said she has to cook seasonally. "I say I am doing seasonal American cuisine with organic ingredients."

Whereas most restaurants change their menus about four times year, Pouillon's menu changes about 40 percent each day due to availability of ingredients. "It makes it more interesting. It keeps the staff on their toes," Pouillon says. "They sort of like it because you don't get into a rut where you day in and day out do the same thing for the whole season."

'Everything has to be used'

Pumpkin soup with pepitas
Pumpkin soup with pepitas  

But organic foods are still very costly compared to conventionally produced foods and finding organic suppliers who sell their products for wholesale is not always easy. For a long time Pouillon had to buy balsamic vinegar in small bottles designed for grocery store consumers. Since she uses about half a gallon a day, it was much more expensive than the non-organic alternative.

"Because ingredients are so expensive I really teach my staff that they cannot throw out anything," said Pouillon. "Everything has to be used. I don't fill up platters or plates so high that I know the customer cannot eat them."

Both Foster and Pouillon agree that eating organic does usually cost consumers more. In part, this is because more high-end restaurants use small farmers who are more likely to raise their food using organic methods, according to Pouillon. Not everyone can get to Washington to eat at Pouillon's restaurant and certainly not everyone can afford it. Foster said eating out organic is "pretty difficult" and in the context of the entire country, "nearly impossible." He does point out however that some communities have more prepared organic food available than others.

Roasted duck legs with winter vegetables
Roasted duck legs with winter vegetables  

"There would be a notable exception in college communities that cater to students, restaurants that cater to students in that case," said Foster. The two age groups that gravitate most to organic are 18- to 25-year-olds and those in pre-retirement. "It is different restaurants that each of those would be attracted to," he added, "but they would both, for different reasons, be attractive for organic producers."

Store-bought prepared foods

Pouillon thinks people who want to eat prepared organic foods often buy them at natural food stores. But assuming prepared foods are organic, even at natural food stores, might be a mistake.

According to Chris Anderson with Whole Foods in Atlanta, Georgia, not all of their prepared foods are organic. Cost and availability are still factors making it difficult to provide organic prepared foods, though Whole Foods does "try to promote the organics whenever possible."

Under the USDA's organic regulations, agencies like Oregon Tilth will be accredited certifying agents of the USDA. These agents will certify producers, handlers and processors, according to Keith Jones, Program Director of the USDA National Organic Program.

Baked apple with raisin-nut stuffing
Baked apple with raisin-nut stuffing  

There are currently about 50 certifying agents in the United States. The proposed USDA rules will not require retailers or restaurants to be certified, but these businesses can certainly apply for certification, Jones said. According to Foster, Oregon Tilth is working toward certification of several different retailers. There has been some concern about the potential for fraudulent claims by retailers, but Jones points out that anyone making a fraudulent label claim, certified or not, is subject to a $10,000 fine.

"We know retail certification is a big thing with the industry, and that is not to say we won't do it at some point in time, we have just chosen not to do it now," said Jones. Restaurant Nora will still receive certification from Oregon Tilth, but it will be a USDA certification.

For her part, Pouillon is excited about the new rules. "I can't wait until they come out," she told CNN Interactive several weeks ago. "Even if they are not perfect, I think it is about time they come out," she says.